(This is where Tony would say it started:
It was a cold afternoon and Tony watched amused as Clint sidled closer and closer to the Hulk as the team cleaned up after some runaway science experiments had gone mad in Central Park. "I told you to wear sleeves, Birdbrain."
"They mess up my aerodynamics," Clint replied sullenly. He pointed at Hulk as he began to huff in that distinctive way that pre-empted all shrinking back to Banner-size. "Don't you dare, big guy. Nothing against Bruce, but he can't double as space heater like you."
It had been a good battle. Tony was finally finding his rhythm with the team and especially with its leader. Captain America was to his left, honest-to-God using a push broom to sweep up the goop the science experiments had exploded into. It wasn't very effective, but Steve was apparently tired enough not to notice.
He liked Steve, more than he thought he would after their explosive first meeting on the helicarrier. Steve had been the first to move into the Tower, the one to sit up with Tony long nights after Pepper had left him, the one to show up in Tony's lab with the mistaken idea that Tony needed to be fed and staring in disapproval at Tony's endless parade of take-out.
He liked Steve a lot.
Enough to go to him when the battle was finished and they had all cleaned up at the Tower and ask him on a date. Steve had stared at him for a straight minute, eyes wide open, mouth moving like a fish.
"That is very attractive, I have to say," Tony teased him, even when it probably set his chances of getting a yes even lower than they were before.
Sure enough, when Steve pulled himself together, he grimaced. "I'm sorry, Tony, but I'm just..."
"Not interested?" Tony guessed. "Not gay? It's all cool, Captain, I just thought I'd ask and see. Never hurts."
"Are you sure?" Steve asked, looking at Tony with concern. Tony snorted. He liked Steve a lot, but not that much.
"I think you're great, Steve, or I wouldn't have asked, but yes. My heart remains intact. We're cool, though, right? I mean I ran the risk but we're still..." He looked at Steve imploringly, not wanting to have to say something so pathetic out loud.
But Steve had looked relieved. "Friends. Yes, of course. We're still friends.")
This is where Steve would say it started:
He could not stop watching Tony Stark.
It was getting to be a bit maddening. Steve had liked men before, nothing compared to Peggy, but Bucky had always been a little bit more than aesthetically pleasing to him. Back then it wasn't done, except for all that it was. Back then it had been scandalous and amoral and illegal.
The forties weren't so long ago to Steve, despite the seventy years that separated him from the decade. He could still remember the fear; another sickness that had crept up on him against his will, another ill with no cure. He'd thought maybe the serum would help but in many ways it had only made things worse.
Now he was here, in the future, and while the old days were still there in bigoted rhetoric, he wasn't sick anymore. There was nothing to help, it was just who he was and who he was was just fine. Normal.
He could not stop watching Tony Stark.
Even if he was normal, Tony Stark was a bit beyond that, even here in the future. He was loud and bright and brash, he sparked like fireworks and Steve was willing to bet burned out just as quickly . Tony was terrifying and terrifyingly charming, sweet and biting edges by turns or all at once. He made Steve's head spin.
Right then he was dancing with one of his bots, because apparently You wanted to learn to waltz. Since You didn't even have legs, Steve found that a bit puzzling.
"No, You, I lead, I - oh, my God, Steve, come here and help us!"
Steve snapped to attention, hoping Tony didn't realize how long he'd been staring. "I don't dance," he said stiffly, remembering Peggy's voice over the line.
"Oh, come on, it'll just be-" Tony broke off, assessing Steve's expression and nodding to himself. "That's cool, I'd be scared to be outclassed by the robot, too. To the left, You. Your left."
He didn't look Steve's way again and something about it seemed deliberate. And it occurred to Steve that Tony probably didn't know that Steve didn't dance because of Peggy. He thought that Steve wouldn't dance with him.
He could let that stand and let dizzying, frightening Tony Stark slip through his fingers. Let that be the end of it. Or he could want him like he wanted to and let Tony want him back. Tony wasn't the most reliable or the safest for this, but safe and reliable probably wouldn't have Tony's eyes and Tony's wit and Tony's hands.
"JARVIS, can you cut the music?" he asked, and the AI complied. The line of Tony's shoulder's went stiff, then started to climb towards his ears as Steve got off the couch and walked towards him. "Tony," he said, but the older man kept his eyes firmly fixed on a still-dancing You. Steve sighed, grabbing him by the biceps and turning him. "Tony. I wanted to ask you if that offer for a date was still on the table?"
Tony's eyes went wider than he'd ever seen, mouth opening and closing. Steve grinned. "That is very attractive, I have to say."
Tony's laugh came out more a splutter of noise. "I-" He looked back up at him, searching for confirmation in Steve's gaze. Steve stared calmly back and a slow smile stretch across Tony's face. "For sure, Cap. Name a time and a place."
They don't kiss until their third date, and Steve breathed "It's okay if we keep this between ourselves for now, right?" even as he pinned Tony against the wall in the common room where anybody could walk in, and kissed him hard. He'd only kissed three other people before Tony, and sometimes he kissed the other man a bit too roughly, but Tony never seemed to mind. He'd been happy the past two weeks, happier than Steve had ever seen in his admittedly limited Tony Stark experience. He didn't seem to mind much of anything. Bruce was worried Tony'd broken into his stash.
"'Course," Tony panted out when Steve allowed him to get a breath. "Figure this is a bit different for you."
"I can handle it," Steve said defensively, biting a path down to the tendons in Tony's neck. "I went to art school. Saw all types."
"Bet you did," Tony breathlessly chuckled. "Alright, you can handle it. But in the interest of keeping this on the down low, maybe we should move this somewhere else?" His hands, clutching so fiercely at Steve's shoulder blades, swept downwards to rest at the small of his back and Steve froze. "Or we can stop here, for the night. Any way you want it, Steve, I'm game."
He was cold everywhere he wasn't touching Tony, but he pulled away regardless. "For tonight, yeah."
Tony just smiled, kissed his cheek, and walked him to the elevator.
Weeks passed and dates were gone on and Tony reached his hand out for Steve's in public, remembering himself at the halfway through the motion. He'd go up on his tiptoes to kiss Steve on the cheek at the table at meals with the other Avengers swarming around them and bounce back down, expression frozen.
"Are you-" he'd begin in one of their bedrooms at night, before the other had to leave to go sleep in his own bed. "Do you-"
Steve knew he was normal now, but it still felt safer to be normal in private than where everyone could see him. That everyone would see him with Tony Stark might have had something to do with it. Tony had been nothing but sweet with him, still as sparking bright and scary as ever but muted somehow, softer. Steve didn't want that to change, irrationally scared that if he shared Tony with the rest of the world, Tony might flip into the persona the rest of the world was used to with him.
"I'm happy you changed your mind about me," Tony said into his shoulder one day, sprawled across him on the couch in the lab. The words sounded almost sad.
They hit two months of dating and Tony gets him two white roses to replace the lilac one he had given him at the one month mark. "Do you even like roses, cause you're getting them," he said. "I'm making it a thing."
"I like them," Steve said. "I like you."
"Cap, you'll make me blush."
Three months and the three roses were still white, and Tony stopped trying to touch him in public or in the Tower on the communal floors, sitting very conspicuously apart from Steve at movie night when before he had draped all over him, even before they'd started this. Steve felt cold that night.
The next morning Clint eyed him cautiously. "Did you and Stark already break up? I thought for sure Captain America could keep him in check for longer than that."
Steve choked on the milk he was drinking and Natasha elbowed Clint in the stomach. Steve glanced between the two of them. "You knew?" he asked incredulously.
Natasha shrugged with a smirk. "You almost managed subtle. Stark did not. So?" When he was done gaping he tilted his head at her, puzzled at her question until he remembered Clint's.
"We haven't broken up. We just hit our three-month anniversary a week ago. He got me roses."
Clint gagged and got another elbow for his trouble. When he regained the ability to breathe, he stated frankly "Alright, you might still be together for now, but that's not gonna last much longer. Stark's not as nauseatingly glowy-happy as he was a few weeks ago. You should talk to him. Glowy-happy Stark makes the best arrows." Steve looked between them, their resolute faces, and felt a little curl of dread in his stomach.
"You don't like this," he said to Tony that night, watching him in the glow of The X-Files. "The sneaking around." Tony froze, snapped 'JARVIS, lights' and turned towards him.
"Who told you that?"
"Clint. He and Natasha know," he admitted uncomfortably. Tony didn't look surprised. "But I should have figured it out on my own. I know that it's not easy for you-"
"Fuck Clint," Tony spat, making Steve rear back a little. "Your comfort is worth a lot more to me than a few weeks, months, whatever you need of waiting. I can deal with it. Don't worry, alright?"
"I don't want you to 'deal with it,'" Steve said. "I want you to be happy."
Tony's whole face softened and he leaned closer to Steve. "I am happy. I've got you." He kissed Steve lightly and settled back into his side, calling for JARVIS to turn marathon night back on. Steve held him close. He felt so warm next to Tony. Safe. It wasn't so scary here.
He outed them to a reporter the next day.
Sex was only an issue when Tony made both of them sit down and talk it out. Steve had always just figured from Bucky's description that sex was just something that happened but not with Tony. "Oh, it can be like that," Tony had said dismissively. "But not with an actual partner and not for their first time. I'm a scientist at heart, Rogers, not a romantic. I go for optimal results."
Tony didn't handle being underneath him well, they had learned from past experience, but he was getting better. Issues with the arc reactor also prevented him from laying on his stomach. He didn't mind bottoming, while Steve was still coming around to the idea of it. "And that's totally cool, Steve, we don't even have to do penetrative sex, okay? But please, I beg of you, you're gonna let me blow you, right? You have to let me blow you, Steve."
The first time they had sex was five months in, five orange roses, and Tony kissed him back into the pillow while Steve ran his hands all over the compact body on top of him. "Beautiful," he kept muttering, over and over, at every new spot that made Tony moan. Tony stuttered out a laugh.
"Look who's talking. Sit up for me, sweetheart." And Steve couldn't say how long it went on, Tony's hand slick over the both of them, but he was quite certain he never wanted it to end.
By nine months in he lived in Tony's room full-time and the roses changed to red. Tony didn't say it and Steve didn't ask. They didn't have to.
This is not where it ended:
Ten months in and Tony ran off to Malibu to let a terrorist blow up his house.
Steve was out of his mind with worry, even when Pepper called to let them know she had a message waiting for them all apologizing for everything. "Steve," Tony's voice said. "I'm an idiot, you have free reign to call me out the next ten times I say I'm a genius. I'm sorry. I'll call you as soon as I can."
But he didn't, taking out the Mandarin with War Machine before the Avengers realized what was happening. Two days later and the President was back in the White House, Rhodes was in talks with SHIELD, and Tony was watching Steve stuff some clothes in a bag. "I just need," Steve said angrily, unable to even look at Tony. "I'll be downstairs. I need some space."
Three days after that and Tony came to him anyway, holding a vial of liquid. "This is Extremis," he told Steve. "I modified it. It could help me survive the surgery to remove the arc reactor. I'd cure it right after; I'm not super keen on living forever-"
"This is the virus that maniac nearly killed Pepper with and you want to put it into your body?" Steve asked incredulously. Tony had been eager to remove the arc reactor as long as he had known him but he hadn't realized his boyfriend was this desperate.
"I fixed it," Tony insisted. "I'm a genius, remember?"
"You're an idiot, remember?" Steve shot back. Tony ducked his head.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," he murmured. "I should have. Not sure why I didn't, except that sometimes I still can't believe you're here with me. And by the time I figured out the Mandarin's game it seemed like it was too late to have everybody rushing in."
"You risked everybody by not calling. The Mandarin almost killed you," Steve said, clenching his hands into fists so Tony wouldn't see how they shook. "I was terrified f-for you. If we're together, then you have to let me be there for you, Tony. You have to rely on the team. This lone wolf stuff won't - can't - work anymore."
Tony nodded, subdued, turning the vial over and over in his hands. "Be there for me now, please. For the surgery. I'm just a teensy bit nervous. They're gonna have to put in a new sternum. I won't scar, thank God, thanks to this-"
"You're not shooting yourself up with that," Steve said firmly. Tony's head snapped up.
"But then the surgery becomes way more risky. Too risky for most surgeons."
Steve eyed the vial, remembering the videos he'd seen of the patients who didn't live through it. "Then don't get the surgery. Please. This stuff is too dangerous, Tony."
Tony's eyes narrowed as he slid the vial into his pocket and straightened up, shoulders going back in a classic Tony Stark Offense-is-the-Best-Defense pose. "I'm afraid we might have gotten some wires crossed, Steve. I love you and I value your opinion but this is my body. I've had more than my fill of other people deciding what's best for it. The surgery's happening, and since I want to live through it, I'll be taking Extremis. The arc reactor is coming out because the idea of not being killed by a handsy supervillain is a really nice one and also this thing is fucking painful. I want you to be there. I need you to help me through this, please, because this is happening whether you like it or not."
"And if I say no?" Steve asked directly, trying to call Tony's bluff, wanting Tony to just stop and think for a second, but Tony's expression went flat.
"Well, you've always known that I'm a selfish man, Captain. I pick me over you."
The night before the surgery Steve came to Tony with his duffel in his hands, wanting back in from the cold. "I'll be there," he told Tony. "I'm so scared, but of course I'll be there."
Tony lived through Extremis and the surgery and the cure that came after. He brought Steve to a large empty concrete room at the bottom of the Tower and let him throw all the remaining vials of Extremis at the wall with extreme prejudice before carefully disposing of the remnants.
That night Steve worshiped Tony's new chest with tongue and teeth until Tony begged for a reprieve or a release, he didn't seem picky. After, Tony held him close and whispered more apologies, promises to get better. "Please don't leave like that again," he asked, just once, when Steve was almost asleep. "I need you."
Steve rented himself an apartment in DC to crash as a layover from his missions based out of the Triskelion to home with Tony in the Tower. It was destroyed when Director Fury was not quite murdered by the Winter Soldier.
A computer program of his long dead enemy cracked the foundation he stood on.
Bucky Barnes came back to life and destroyed it.
Steve's whole world ground to a halt on that street, and for once even the ever-present buzz of wonder about Tony was wiped away.
"Who the hell is Bucky?"
Bucky nearly killed him on the helicarrier and Steve still didn't, couldn't let go without a fight. It paid off in the end. He knew who dragged him out of the Potomac. He knew his friend was still in there.
He came to in the hospital to the sound of Tony's voice, sharp with irritation. "So then the guy says, this lone wolf stuff isn't going to work, Tony. What, I will ask him, was this?"
"I mean, he had me and Black Widow and Fury." Sam.
"Well, that's super fucking comforting when he could have had Thor, Hawkeye, and his goddamn boyfriend who can fly," Tony snarled back. "Hey, asshole," he said, closer to Steve. "I can tell you're awake."
"Um, he was shot like three times, buddy," Sam said, a note of warning in his voice.
"Yes, and he's a super soldier. I am not picking on him, stop making that face, Wind Beneath My Wings, that is literally what he will tell me about a million times after I try to keep him on bedrest."
Steve coughed out a laugh. "You know me so well." He opened his eyes and Tony was there, filling up his whole vision.
True to his words, his first proper sentence to Steve was "What the hell was this?"
"I tried, man," Sam said from somewhere to his left, and Steve waved a comforting hand, focusing on Tony.
"It was Bucky," he told him hoarsely. "The Winter Soldier was Bucky. I couldn't risk it. Had to take down HYDRA." Tony opened his mouth, to argue maybe, then sat back with a sigh.
"I'm so sorry, Steve. Whatever you need to find him, you have me." Steve patted his boyfriend's hand in thanks and drifted off to sleep.
It didn't occur to him until he was back in the Tower, his brain still too exhausted to connect the dots.
'Accidents will happen,' Zola had cheerfully told them, a picture of Howard with blacked-out eyes marked deceased right next to a photo of Nick Fury marked the same. He spent hours looking through the data that Natasha had dumped on the internet, finding only an obscure reference to some files marked 121691. Maybe JARVIS didn't realize what it was because of the seemingly random digits, but Steve put it together.
The Winter Soldier had killed Howard and Maria Stark.
Steve knew that Tony did not avoid the mention of his mother for the same reasons he avoided talking about Howard. It was not disdain or years old resentment but a deep, abiding grief that held Tony's tongue. He had mentioned her once, when Steve had reminisced about his own mother, recalling soft blonde hair and a permanent scent of sandalwood and her voice, always her voice. "Bambino," Tony had whispered into the dark, curling into Steve's side.
Was he supposed to give Tony a new form of pain on top of the loss he already experienced? Was he supposed to risk dragging Bucky down into that darkness? Tony could react badly, he could want vengeance on Buck, and Tony could get it.
It was better as things were then. Maybe when Bucky was in the Tower and recovered, they could discuss it. Until then, Tony had healed from his parents' deaths as best he could. Steve couldn't be the one to tear open that wound.
He didn't see Tony much over the next few months, chasing after Bucky from place to place. They fought once, Tony asking if maybe it wasn't better to give Bucky some space, and Steve left only to come back in a week, empty-handed and tired and conceding that maybe Tony was right before taking off after a tip from Maria Hill.
Tony began to look surprised to see him every time he came back. He curled away from Steve on the nights he was there, no longer used to having him in their bed. Steve resolved to stay by his side until his smile was as bright as before but then Sam called and Steve set out again.
Tony was his forever. There would be time. Bucky needed his help now.
Bruce cornered him one night when he was home, brought Steve to the counter, and lined up the four empty whiskey bottles Tony had gone through since the last time Steve had seen him two and half weeks ago. "I am not saying," the scientist said, carefully controlled. "That Tony shouldn't be fully capable of not doing this sort of nonsense to himself. That he shouldn't be over his self-destructive streak by now. What I am saying is that you are no longer helping."
Steve ordered the Tower cleared of alcohol and Tony raged at him for two straight days. "You're not even here," he screamed at him. "You can't come waltzing back in whenever you want trying to dictate my life!"
Steve pulled him close, taking several fists to the gut, and listened as Tony's heavy breathing stuttered into repressed sobs. "Do you love me?" he managed. "Even - do you love me, Steve?"
He felt his heart crack neatly in two and handed off one half of it to Tony. "I do. Of course I do. I love you, Tony."
Steve couldn't even remember when he stopped receiving roses for their anniversaries.
He stayed after that, and things got better. Tony held him again at night and they made love in the mornings. And every turn of the sun he was sure to tell him "Tony, I love you." And Tony always replied in kind, his smile getting easier every exchange.
The Avengers came back together to hunt down Loki's scepter for a grieving and lost Thor, he desperate for a purpose and the rest of them desperate to get it out of HYDRA's hands. He sent out Sam in his stead to search for Bucky and they talked everyday, tracking his progress. It was easy to talk to Sam, to form a bubble away from the heaviness of the Tower and his still slightly-strained relationship with Tony. Tony always sent along his best wishes and made Sam promise to let him know if he needed new gear, keeping him abreast of any spotting of Sergeant James Barnes, even building Sam a new AI named Redwing to help on his search.
They finally tracked the scepter down, retrieving it even though it left Hawkeye wounded and a dark, haunted look in Tony's eye. At the party they had later on that night Tony watched them all from a distance, tracking them with their eyes as if he needed reassurance they were all alive.
Then the robot attacked.
"She showed me your deaths," Tony whispered to his back as they lie cramped together on the bed the Bartons had graciously lent to them overnight. Steve couldn't look at Tony then, couldn't hear him lie one more time, but Tony was scared now. "The Maximoff kid, she got into my head like the rest of you, at the base with the scepter. And she showed me you. All of you. Dead. And I couldn't stop it."
"So you built an artificial intelligence with a crazy cosmic stone that you knew nothing about as a power source and didn't tell any of us," Steve summarized for him. Tony's hand, which had been resting warm against his back, snatched away. Steve rolled onto his back, sighing at the ceiling. "Tony, I'm sorry you had to see that. I am; being left like that - But you lied to me, to the team, kept us out of the loop again. And now there's Ultron."
"I didn't create him to hurt anybody," Tony replied. "It's not like Bruce and I set out to create a murderbot."
"No, you just set out to create an AI to watch over everybody without their knowledge whether they wanted it or not," Steve argued. "You should have told me what you were doing, Tony. The fact that you kept it a secret means you knew it was the wrong thing to do." He didn't know if he was angrier about Ultron or that fact that after all this time, Tony still didn't let him all the way in.
"I wanted to keep everybody safe," is the soft answer.
"Well," Steve said bluntly, because sometimes the truth hurt and right now Tony needed to hear it. "You really fucked up that one." Tony flinched away from him, hard, and rolled to sit up. Steve sat up with him, dragging his unresponsive partner towards him and placing his head on his shoulder. "Now fix it. You're the genius engineer, it's what you do. I believe in you, I really do. But whatever you come up with, we do it together, okay? You have to talk to me, Tony, please. To all of us, not just Bruce."
"Okay," Tony breathed out, one hand raising to cover his. "Together."
"I still love you," he told Tony as they shoved rubble into easily-cleaned piles. "And I always will. But I think we both need a break." Iron Man turned towards him and Steve wished Tony would raise the face plate. "I need some space," he clarified when Tony didn't reply. "I'm still angry and I just - I love you. But I can't be around you right now."
Iron Man's head tilted down ever so slightly. "What happened to together?" The computerized voice was completely deadened.
"We'll still be together," Steve promised. "Please, Tony, just give me this. For a little while, until we can both process this." He didn't want to say the worst truth of all: that he no longer trusted Tony like he had before, that he didn't feel Tony trusted him, and he couldn't rebuild that trust with him until he had stopped being angry with him. Tony and Bruce and Wanda had created Ultron and Ultron had killed hundreds of people today, nearly destroyed the whole planet. As much as he loved Tony, he couldn't turn a blind eye to that. He would have nightmares about the bots for months, the people he'd seen ripped apart before he could get to them, and if he slept beside Tony every night he was scared he might start associating him with them even more than he did.
"Alright," Iron Man finally said. "Square deal, Captain. You good here?" And before Steve could respond, he was blasting off into the air. Steve watched him go for several long moments until he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"You okay?" Falcon asked him, goggles pulled down to his neck exposing his concerned gaze.
"Will be," Steve said wearily. "Thanks for coming today."
Falcon grinned. "Hey, for you, my man? Anything."
This is not where it ended:
Steve stared at the patch of scorched grass, hyper-aware of the tense line of Tony's body at his side. "That guy has absolutely no regard for lawn care," his...ex?...his boyfriend?...his someone cracked lightly, walking on to his waiting car.
"I still say this car is hideous," Steve said, trying to maintain the mood. Tony shrugged, not meeting his eyes through the large dark lenses of his sunglasses.
"Well, there's no accounting for taste," he murmured, and for some reason it hit Steve hard in the gut. Tony was going to climb into his hideous car and leave this place for who knew how long. Retired, he had decided, but he had been looking at Steve when he said it and it sounded like a question.
"I don't know," Steve said. "I do alright most days." It was supposed to be a compliment but it made Tony wince and grab for his door handle. Steve lunged forward, covering that hand with his, stepping close to Tony's body. "Just give me time, Tony," he whispered, and Tony nodded. "I just need..."
Steve didn't have any answers here.
He couldn't finish the thought, but luckily he didn't have to. Tony placed his hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed once. "Space. I got it, Cap. It's fine." He looked beyond him to the compound. "You gonna be okay here?"
Steve looked over his shoulder, smiling at the place that Tony had built for all of them, somewhere they could be themselves, without the rest of the world looking in. "I think this could be home." Someday soon. When Steve could process what had happened and he and Tony could come back together, learn and grow from Ultron and move on to something even better than what they had before, then this would be a real home.
He looked back at Tony to find the other man watching him with a soft smile. "Well, then. I'm happy for you," he said. He squeezed one more time then withdrew his hand, Steve stepping back so he could get the door open.
He reached up, palming Steve's cheek for the briefest of moments, before sliding away and into the car. There were no more words. They weren't necessary. Steve knew that Tony needed his own time as well to deal with what had happened. Time would heal these wounds. He let Tony drive away with a bittersweet smile and one hand raised, missing him already but knowing this was for the best.
This wasn't the end.
(Looking back, Tony would say it was already over)
(This is where Tony would say it ended:
Tony found Steve not down in the gyms where he would be expected, or the bed that he was technically still supposed to be resting in, or in Tony's labs playing with the bots, or in the kitchen eating a greater-than-an-already-greater-than-average amount of food in response to these last few days of healing - but in one of the small studies Tony almost never ventured into. It reminded him of his father's old office back in the mansion on Fifth Avenue, and those were memories Tony dearly loved to push away.
"You're avoiding me," he said, and Steve's head shot up. Tony almost laughed at him, the super soldier so engrossed in whatever it was that Tony could get the drop on him, but he was still too angry and worried. "At least you're sitting down."
"I'm fine, Tony," Steve insisted, like he had the first hundred times Tony had expressed concern. Tony knew he was, but it didn't keep the panic away. Steve had almost died up on those helicarriers, and as soon as Tony got him back to New York his boyfriend had squirreled himself away, unable to meet Tony's eyes even when they did interact.
Tony sauntered over to where he sat, Steve reaching to bring down the lid of laptop then apparently thinking better of it when Tony raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow climbed even higher when he saw what was on the screen. "The SHIELD data dump? Steve, you know I've got JARVIS running a program to wipe any harmful stuff out before the public can break into this."
Steve stiffened a little in his chair then forcibly relaxed, reaching one arm out to wind around Tony's waist and pull him closer. "Did he find anything yet?"
"Eh, he's wiped out a few of SHIELD's attempts to recreate the reactor and the suit, any mentions of others, a few things about my dad - those I looked at first -" Steve's arm was getting tighter and tighter and Tony felt a bit trapped. "- but it was just bits of his old research, some correspondence with Peggy Carter. Nothing that I didn't already get from Fury. Why? Was I supposed to find something?"
Steve seemed to sort of collapse at his question, turning his face into Tony and bringing his free arm to meet his other hand at Tony's back and just sagged there. Tony raised his hands slowly and then ever so carefully began to run them through Steve's hair. "Steve, honey. I love you. But you're starting to scare me. I know the situation with Bucky is rough but we'll figure it out. I just - I don't know, you've been running away from me since we got back. Is there something you need to tell me, something I can help with?"
"No," he finally said. He pulled his head away from Tony's stomach and looked up at him, wide blue eyes slightly damp. "I'm sorry, Tone, I just...Bucky..." His voiced cracked on his old friend's name, his head dipping back down to Tony's navel.
Tony caved, wrapping his arms around Steve tight.
Looking back, Tony didn't regret the caving. By the time he could realize what Steve had been looking for, there were much bigger things to regret.)
Tony called him like clockwork twice a week. The first two weeks Steve missed the calls, still trying to get everything sorted out with the new Avengers. Wanda still made him a bit angry, Vision honestly freaked him out, and Rhodey, warm when they first met, grew colder the longer their acquaintance persisted. He tried to interact with all of them but he kept closest to Natasha and Sam, the three of them blowing off steam at night by messing around with the obstacle course settings or going a few rounds at the gym.
That and honestly, he wanted to know that Tony was regaining control of his own life. On the news the tech experts started chattering about some unexpected new waves coming out of Stark Industries and Steve grinned at the memory of his genius boyfriend on one of his binges in the lab. He knew Tony wouldn't give up Iron Man forever, that he just needed to come to terms with Ultron, but it was nice to know he was keeping busy. They both had tangles in their heads and they needed to sort them out before they spoke and said something they regretted.
The first time he picked up their conversation was stilted, glancing over too many topics to flow. Steve missed the second call but was there both times the next week, and it flowed easier, Tony sounding cheerful and upbeat as he puttered around the lab, talking to his new AI FRIDAY and finally ready to hear Steve talk about the New Avengers. "You sound good," Tony said. "Happy. Good for you, Steve."
He missed a solid week when he and Sam went chasing after Bucky once again, missing him by a train. When he got back Rhodey was gone and Natasha was stony-eyed as she informed him that Tony had called and Steve was to call back straight away and inform his boyfriend that he was safe. She even stood and watched as he did so then wandered away.
"Sorry, Tony, that was careless of me," he said. "I didn't want you to worry, but we had to leave straight away if we wanted to catch him. Still missed him, though."
"It's fine," Tony dismissed. "Sorry about Barnes." It still made Steve twitch a little, every time Tony talked about Bucky, like the other man could figure it out if he just said Bucky's name enough times.
Their calls got easier, flirtier, more like they used to be, and Steve missed Tony. His absence, always felt, now became a yawning ache inside of him. Two months and a half months apart and Steve climbed on his motorcycle.
"Bringing him home?" Natasha called from the garage doorway.
Steve grinned. "You bet. See you soon!"
It was jarring to hear FRIDAY in person at the elevator of the Tower, and Steve missed JARVIS acutely. He couldn't even imagine how Tony felt. "Where is Tony?"
"Boss is in his labs right now."
"Alright, take me to him, FRIDAY."
"No can do, Captain. Boss is on Do Not Disturb and Pepper Potts wants a word. I don't say no to Pepper Potts."
Steve was surprised. "Can you tell Tony I'm here?"
"Boss already knows, Captain. That's why he's the Boss."
She took him up to the communal floor where, indeed, Pepper Potts was waiting for him. The floor was colder than Steve had ever felt it, and lonely. There was a fine layer of dust on some of the furniture, all of it still pushed into the same position it had been for the party.
Pepper rounded on him at his first footfall. "Why are you here?" The question was not kind.
"To talk to Tony," Steve replied, a bit nonplussed.
"Ah, so have you decided the exile is over?" Pepper asked acidly, one dangerous eyebrow raising sky high. Steve bristled a little.
"Ma'am. I don't know what you've been thinking, but I asked Tony for time apart and he agreed to it. We needed it, and I'm grateful that he loved me enough to give me that."
But Pepper just scoffed. "Of course Tony loved you enough for that. Tony would do anything for you. But you already knew that, didn't you, Captain?"
Steve genuinely didn't know what she was talking about. "Tony's always had a mind of his own. He chases after what's right, even if he disagrees with me. Miss Potts, I know Tony as well as you do. Ultron was hard on all of us, hardest on him. I wasn't the only one who needed space."
"I don't know who else you're talking about, since it sure as hell isn't Tony," Pepper slung back, her voice dripping with disdain. "Tony needed someone to tell him that he wasn't a monster, that he was still good and useful, that he had something to contribute to this planet that wasn't death. He needed someone to hold him at night when whatever Wanda Maximoff did to his head got to be too much. Tony needed you, Captain." Steve opened his mouth to respond and she held up a hand. "Don't worry, we did your job for you. Rhodey and I have been here for Tony for a long time, Rogers, and we always will be. So if that's all-" And she marched passed him, making for the elevator to show him out, when the doors slid open and Tony spilled out, Rhodey following soon after him.
Tony looked terrible. There was no sign of that cheerful voice he had heard on the phone these past weeks. His eyes, already so large, were huge and sunken, shadowed by purple rings. He looked to have lost at least ten pounds and his hands were covered in bandages. Worst, Steve could smell the faintest tinges of alcohol.
"Steve," he croaked. He looked back at Rhodey, who nodded firmly at him, then to Steve. "Steve, I'm really tired. Will you stay here while I get some rest? Your room's still in order."
He looked old. For the first time, Tony looked old. "Of course," Steve said weakly. "I'll be right here."
Tony managed to convince Pepper and Rhodey to stop hovering long enough for them to talk. "What's wrong, then?" Tony began. "I'm sure it's not a big bad since you would've said straight off and also, I'm retired and also, your shiny New Avengers. So it's just you. What's wrong?"
Steve watched the way Tony refused to watch him and a bubble of shame rose up hot in his stomach. Pepper had been right. He knew Tony better than that, he knew that Tony was fully capable of running a company and wandering around as a superhero and managing to squeeze in a few dozen guilt-trips before bed. He should have anticipated what Tony would be going through after Ultron but he had been too wrapped up in his own hurt feelings.
"Nothing's wrong," he finally said. "I want you to come home." Tony stops dead from his pacing, blinking incomprehensibly at Steve. "Tony, I am so sorry for all of this, I never meant - I should have thought and I didn't -"
"Hey, no, none of that," Tony shushed, looking dismayed. "Pepper and Rhodey are over-protective, okay. What did I tell you way back when? Your comfort is worth more than a coupla weeks of me waiting."
Steve cautiously approached him. "And I remember telling you that I didn't want you to deal with it. I want you to be happy."
Tony shook his head. "You were right to be angry. I nearly got us all killed. I got Wanda's brother killed and JARVIS killed and Bruce is off in fucking Wakanda or something-"
"And then you saved us all," Steve told him, pulling him in. "You saved me, saved Sokovia. Ultron killed Pietro and JARVIS, and we beat him back. The Avengers saved the planet and retired or not, you're always an Avenger, Tony." He kissed the sweat-stiffened hair underneath his chin. "I love you. I know we still have a lot to work on and I know it'll be hard and we're both crap at it, but I want to try. I want to be with you. Don't ever doubt that. I can't do this without you."
Tony gave a tiny broken chuckle. "Sure you can. You're Captain America."
"I'm also Steve Rogers," Steve said, running his hand through Tony's hair and pulling at the last second so that Tony looked up to him. "And I sort of left my heart with Tony Stark. And I'm sorry."
Tony gazed up at him, the soft look that used to be in his eyes whenever he looked at Steve turned brittle now. But he smiled just the same as ever. "Me, too. I can't even tell you how much. I can't go with you right now - I actually am pretty busy with the company and I need a few more actual nights' sleep before I deal with the Witch and Not JARVIS. Give me another week and yeah, we can go home."
"Can I stay here?" Steve asked, and Tony's entire face lit up as he nodded.
Rebuilding for the second time was even harder, Rhodey's watchful eye not making it any easier. In a way Steve appreciated it; it kept him honest. He wasn't the only one with resentments that he was afraid of - Tony had finally confessed that Steve's persistent pursuit of Bucky had often made him feel like he was being cast off or that he wasn't important, and that it had made him treat Steve unfairly when it came to his desperation to finding his best friend.
"I know he means the world to you and if someone brainwashed Rhodey, I'd burn the whole world down to get him back, so I get it, and I'll always be there to help," Tony told him. "But your friend isn't just running from HYDRA anymore, Steve. He's running from you."
After Sokovia the vein of self-hatred that had always run through Tony was nearly all-encompassing. Steve had figured within two weeks back at the compound Tony would be back in the suit but it had been two months and Tony had yet to step foot into one metal-plated boot. Instead, he met all day with different charities to support Sokovian relief, something that Wanda had thanked him for to their equal mortification, and at nights he frequently left the compound to glad-hand with politicians about the current of negative opinion that was currently rising about the Avengers.
"The UN's making moves," Tony told him one night. "King T'Chaka of Wakanda's spearheading it. Wakanda's always been pretty isolationist but I guess the attack on Johannesburg hit too close to home."
"What do you think?" Steve asked as they slid under the covers.
"The last mission you guys went on was busting up another drug cartel," Tony said. "That's something the police could have done. Which means in this case you made yourselves the police with none of the oversight that goes with it. From that perspective, you can see how it would make people nervous. Who do you answer to?"
"Ourselves," Steve answered promptly. He could agree with the basic idea of accountability but not when it tied their hands.
Tony snorted. "To the outside world, that's not as reassuring as you think it is. We'll see how it goes, Steve, try to keep it under control." He snuggled in close to Steve, always on the verge of exhaustion these days, and Steve held him tight, feeling unaccountably afraid.
Months later, Wanda accidentally killed two dozen people in Nigeria and the Accords were now no longer something they could control.
"I'm trying to-" Tony said, and he stopped, breathing hard, collecting himself. "I'm trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart."
Something inside Steve snapped, went red. This was the Tony he had stayed away from those two long months, the one trying to control everything even as it destroyed them all. They shouldn't be fighting like this, fighting at all. Tony knew how corrupt politicians could be, he'd nearly paid the price for it in New York City yet he was willing to put the Avengers in their hands? The people willing to hunt Bucky down like an animal and chain him up in a glass box? The only ones the Avengers could truly trust was themselves. Tony was blindsided by his guilt and his jealousy. He wouldn't listen and now Steve had no choice.
I can't do this without you, he remembered, and gripped his shield tight. "You did that when you signed."
This is where Steve would say it ended:
The flicker of black and white played over red and gold armor and Steve watched as the face he loved most in this world went blank, drained of all emotion, before it turned to Steve.
"Did you know?"
"I didn't know it was-" But Tony was already grabbing at him, gripping his arm tight, that blank face flipping to anger in a flash.
"Don't bullshit me, Steve! Did you know?" And this was a Tony Steve had never seen before. This was a Tony who frightened him.
There was no going back now. Not anymore. Steve looked at Bucky's scared face just over Tony's shoulder and took a breath. "Yes."
He sent a letter and a phone from the quiet of Wakanda and waited. He spent most of his time with Sam, scaling high into the mountains while Falcon soared overhead. The phone never rang.
It took Tony eight months and three weeks to bring them back home. There were no pleasantries exchanged, just one terse "You're needed" and confirmation that Steve would be there.
When they arrived back in the States Tony and his Mighty Avengers had come fresh off of defeating the Thunderbolts. They seemed wary of the old Avengers and protective of Tony, Rhodes, and Vision. Natasha showed up a week after Steve and the introductions began all over again.
There was Captain Marvel, AKA Carol Danvers. The Wasp, Scott's long-suffering girlfriend Hope van Dyne. Moon Knight, someone even Tony had trouble explaining but cheerfully called Marc, and Spider-Man, the heat of his glare burning even through the mask. There was another man there as well, a Stephen Strange who quite adamantly insisted he was not a member of the Avengers, chatting with T'Challa.
Alongside them was a strange new group that referred to themselves as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Peter Quill, their leader, flipped his wig for a moment at meeting Steve but withdrew and was quickly overshadowed by his green-skinned assassin friend, the six and a half foot blue juggernaut, the talking raccoon, and the tree. They were the reason why Steve and the others had finally been called.
"There's this guy called Thanos. Mean son of a bitch, no offense Gamora, that's after the Infinity Stones to complete a nifty little Gauntlet thing that will give him power over, oh basically everything. He already has one, got it off the Collector, something your buddy Thor dealt with that became the Reality Stone. Or was always the Reality Stone. I don't know," Quill huffed out. "Point is we came here to warn you all that Thanos blew up Xandar to get the Power Stone and as soon as he gets the Space Stone away from Asgard he's coming for the Mind Stone stuck inside your robot pal over there and Mister It's-The-Eye-of-Agamotto-Thank-You back there messing around with the Time Stone."
"I am not-" Strange began, then just sighed, clearly already used to this argument.
"We've heard word from Thor," Tony said quietly, finally meeting Steve's eyes. "They've hit Ragnarok. It's too late for Asgard; we'll be lucky if we get him and Bruce back in one piece. The Guardians have given us the best warning they could and they've agreed to stand with us, but we've got to face this threat together. We've revised the Accords, look them over. You want to sign, great, you don't, then stay here and train until the big battle and stay out of everyone else's way. In the interest of full disclosure, Rocket and I have been working with some of the top scientists to create upper-atmosphere weapons capable of harming Thanos' ships. We've put the world's governments on full alert, but the Avengers are, as always, the first and the last line of Earth's defense. We've had our problems, now it's time to get the hell over them and move on, at least on the field. I don't care how you act outside of that but as of right now we have an active op. Do not fuck up my ops. Are we clear?"
Steve found himself nodding despite himself, not surprised to see most everyone else doing the same. Tony had only gotten like this once or twice before while they had been Avengers together, and both times were when Stark weapons were at play. Now the planet Tony had fought for so hard was at stake again. No wonder he sounded like this.
"Great," Tony growled, then his face eased into a smile. "Now let's eat. I have about four dozen pizzas waiting in the kitchen. HERBIE's trolling around up here; newbies, he thinks he's people. He is not. Do not give him food."
They all tramped into the kitchen, split neatly into two groups. Steve stepped forward, hoping to finally catch the elusive Tony, when Peter Quill caught him by the elbow, leaning in close to whisper about how hot Tony's command voice was, heading off with a laugh and a 'oh, I will!' when Tony told him to keep dreaming. Steve was left there, hand outstretched, feeling very cold.
"Do you think-"
"No," Tony cut him off. "Not right now. Possibly not ever. Those were my parents, Rogers. You had no right."
Tony and he worked together as well as they ever did coordinating the team to be as prepared as they could, but when the graphs and displays and statistics were gone, all Steve was left with was a pair of flinty black eyes gleaming accusingly from across the table.
T'Challa brought Bucky over after Tony finally perfected BARF and within a month Steve had his best friend back. He joined them readily enough, but only after he had been allowed down into Tony's lab to say his piece. Steve never found out what they said in there, but when they came out Tony formerly introduced Bucky Barnes to his team.
"You mind still being the Winter Soldier?" Tony asked him. "We can change it, but I don't know man, Winter Soldier's kinda snazzy."
Bucky laughed. "That was HYDRA. Always snazzy. Winter Soldier is who I am. I'll reclaim it. Make it better." Tony clapped his hand on Bucky's metal arm.
"Damn straight you will. Or they'll never find your body!" And he swanned off whistling the Jaws theme. Bucky, famed super spy assassin, looked a tiny bit nervous.
Just give him time, his friends reminded him every day, while the Mighty Avengers seemed perfectly content keeping Tony to themselves. Peter Quill could always be found in Tony's lab, testing out new propulsion boots or the metal of Tony's suit against his intergalatic weapons. They laughed a lot, beyond the glass. There was something fond and indulgent in Tony's gaze that Steve had never seen directed at him.
Just give him time. His comfort was more important than any waiting Steve would have to do.
They talked more over time. Steve coerced Tony into meals under the guise of talking strategy that devolved into arguments over which Avenger could beat who. Sometimes they were joined by others; Sam was the most common, a comforting presence at his side that Tony eyed speculatively more than once. Sometimes it was Bucky and Natasha, intensely interested in each other but unable to properly express it. Rhodey was banned since all he did was glare but Spider-Man eventually warmed up to Steve.
He could never quite compete with Peter Quill, with the sheer brightness of him, but he didn't try to. Quill made Tony smile and for all his flirting, Tony didn't appear to be interested in anything serious. He fit into the Guardians seamlessly, listening to Rocket with rapt attention in one ear while nodding along to Drax's fighting tips in the other and talking 'Terran' customs with Gamora. And at the center of it, Quill, always Quill, vainglorious, sneaky, brilliant and funny Peter Quill. No, Steve could not compete with that but he didn't have to. Tony loved Steve as he was and Steve loved him all the more for it.
"I did miss you," Tony told him one day while they sat outside and looked up at the sky, trying to see the stars and not imagine Thanos bearing down on them. "No matter what else has happened, or what else will, I probably always will when you're gone."
"Me, too," Steve replied, a sharp ache to this sweetness making his heart ache. "I never wanted to leave you, Tony."
"I believe that," Tony said after a weighted pause. "But you never wanted to stay enough to make it matter, either."
Steve reached out for him, wrapping a hand around his wrist. "I'm here now. And I'll prove to you that I'm staying this time."
Tony just smiled the saddest smile he had ever seen and pulled his wrist away.
"Dance with me!" he heard coming from the kitchen late at night. He was awake sketching Sam, who had fallen asleep on the couch midway through Pacific Rim, but put his pad down at the sound of Tony's voice. "All my robots must know dance."
And of all of them, HERBIE was the most capable, with his two working legs, even if his giant head made rapid movements ill-advised. HERBIE was their cleaner bot, and he moved as slow as molasses. Hope said he was most likely created on a dare from Carol that Tony couldn't recreate the robot from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Apparently there was a BB-8 in works down in the basement.
HERBIE was whistling a tune at half-speed, swaying gently in Tony's arms, while Peter Quill looked on. "No, Herb," Tony laughed. "The other way. You want to lead, then you got to step out-"
"Lemme try," Quill said suddenly, and Steve's heart that had climbed up his throat suddenly froze there.
Tony seemed equally shocked. "With HERBIE?"
"With you, dork," Quill corrected, pushing off the counter to hold his hand out. "I never got to learn. Most of my dancing I learned off the strippers of Carmeline. Not pretty." That got a laugh out of Tony and slowly, ever so slowly, the smaller man stepped away from HERBIE and into the circle of Quill's arms. The robot hummed on at the same slow pace and Quill began to sway.
"Okay," Tony said shakily, voice higher than usual. "First you need to-"
Quill joined in on the tune, humming it louder, swinging Tony around. "We gotta warm up first, Stark. Let's just stay like this for awhile, yeah? This is nice."
He rested the side of his head against the top of Tony's and closed his eyes. Cautiously, like a spooked animal, Tony leaned forward until his forehead touched Quill's chest. This was - this was enough, Steve had to -
"Steve," Sam said, there at his shoulder, always there. "Let's get you to bed, man. Get some rest." And Steve went.
The tune was stuck in his head.
Thor and Bruce touched down with Lady Sif and the Warriors Now-Two, and Thanos was hot on their heels. If his life was staked on it Steve could honestly not recall most of the battle, except for when they lost Strange in a swirling vortex that wiped out a good fifth of the invading army. Luke Cage hit a wall at terminal velocity midway through and never woke up. Moon Knight perished beneath a swarm of soldiers. Vision, despite their best efforts, was dismantled, but Tony and Wanda guarded his mangled body with their lives for most of the battle until the Mind Stone could be returned to its rightful place.
It was a miracle that so many of them lived.
When it was all said and done, they were left with an intact Infinity Gauntlet and a ruined city. Gamora slotted the stones into the Gauntlet one by one, then handed it to Tony.
"What do you want me to do with this?" he asked helplessly, looking around.
"I want you to save them," Gamora replied. "The Gauntlet can grant the will of the owner, all you have to do is need it enough. Need it purely. I trust you, Tony Stark. You have led us this far. I believe you can do this."
Tony stared doubtfully down at the gauntlet in his palms, unmoving. Steve stepped forward.
"Tony," he whispered. "Remember the vision Wanda showed you? Your response to that wasn't to give in and despair, even though we left you all alone in the dark. Your response was to build something that would save all of us."
"That turned into Ultron," Tony reminded him. Steve's lips quirked up. Tony, stubborn to the end.
"Those people need you to save them now. Everything that you've faced since you became Iron Man has carved you into exactly the man you need to be to do this. That drive you feel everyday to make the world better for tomorrow, use it now. I believe in you, Tony."
Tony's shoulders tensed up tightly for a few seconds then unwound, and the man looked at Steve incomprehensibly for a moment before nodding and sliding the glove over his gauntlet.
It powered up in a cascade of rainbows and lights, Tony holding it high so its glow lit up the ruins for miles. "Everything that Thanos did to get to you," he could hear Tony command. "Everything he did to assemble you here. Take it back. Take it all back. Bring them back."
The Gauntlet shone impossibly brighter for a moment then flickered dark. When Tony lowered his hand they could see that several of the stones were now missing. In Danny Rand's lap Luke Cage stirred. Doctor Strange appeared in a cloud of smoke with an advisement against dying that a woozy Moon Knight echoed. Wanda reported over the comm that Vision was active once again.
"We won," Tony said disbelievingly. He grabbed Steve to him and pulled him in tight, voice nears tears as he shouted "We won!"
The Guardians went back into space to check on Xandar while Thor returned to the ruins of Asgard. Tony's will restored the realm but not the people lost to Ragnarok, and Thor found himself on a lonely throne.
"I'll be back you know," Quill told Tony, throwing a duffel over his shoulder that Groot caught with a smile. "For you. You can't resist me forever, Stark."
"You? Yes," Tony snarked back. "The stars? Oh, that one's tough."
"Hey, whatever works," Quill said, unfazed. He looked around to the crowd gathered and gave everyone else a wave. "We'll be back before you know we're gone. No tears, okay, I hate crying. It's weird, and I might actually be allergic to it. I'll see you soon. You," he directed at Tony, then he smiled before dropping a kiss on the smaller man's forehead. "You be good."
Tony missed Quill, it was plain to see, but he soon busied himself with those left to him. He reaffirmed his friendships with Bruce and Natasha and even warmed up to Scott and Wanda. He rededicated himself to the company, sending in new schematics to Pepper weekly. And he tried, with Steve.
"I still don't forgive you," he said. "And I'm betting there's still a part of you that's angry with me. But I'd like us to be friends."
They ate meals together and watched bad films and trained even though Tony was hitting forty-eight and ran out of steam way more quickly. They sat out at night and watched the stars.
"Are you looking for him?" Steve asked him one such night. When Tony shrugged but nodded he ignored the clench of his heart and soldiered on. "Are you...with him?"
"Peter? No," Tony said softly. "He's half Spartoi. He's going to live a very long time. And besides, I tend not to take guys like that very seriously. Peter flirts with anything that moves but the moment you turn the charm on him he freaks out. All talk, no game, and I'm too old for that." But his voice was colored with fondness as he stared up at the sky.
The others, the older ones, watched Tony and Steve patch themselves back up with soft eyes shining with approval and hope, all except for one. Steve could not figure out why Rhodey looked at him with such pity.
"I'm sorry that I lied to you about your parents," Steve blurted out one day, watching Tony work in the lab. The other man stiffened, then sighed and laid his tools down, turning towards Steve.
"We're ready to do this, then?"
Steve nodded, even as his stomach tied itself up in a million knots. "I should never have done it. You were right. I had no right. I didn't want to have that conversation with you, I didn't want to be the one that hurt you that way. But I still did, a thousand times worse. I can never apologize enough for that, Tony."
Tony expelled a deep breath in one go, seeming to ready himself before walking over and sitting down beside Steve. "There were things," he began. "That I could have done better. I locked up Wanda without even telling her. I could have bought us some more time. I'm sorry the others ended up in jail. But I won't apologize for supporting the Accords and doing what I thought was right, even if it meant standing against you. And I want you to know that I'd do it again."
It was not what Steve would most like to hear, but it was Tony, brave and stubborn, and Steve wouldn't want anything else. "I understand that. I respect it. The next time, if there is a next time, we have an argument like that I'll try to remember that I'm not the only one standing on the side of good."
"Yeah, I think that would help us both," Tony said, and they both laughed. Tony watched him, eyes shining. "You're happy now, right, Steve?"
Steve's laugh tapered off as he took in the serious set to Tony's mouth. "I'm getting there, yeah," he answered truthfully. He had Bucky, who was happy with Natasha. Sam, who he'd be lost without. He had his team. He had Tony. He still dreamed about the past, but it was just that - a dream. He liked waking up nowadays.
This is where it really ends:
Steve didn't know what prompted him to do it, maybe the ice cream at the corner of Tony's mouth or the free easy smiles he had been the recipient of all day, but he leaned forward and captured Tony's lips under his, dropping his own cone to carefully hold the other's man head between his hands and tease the seam of his lips with his own tongue.
There was a moment, one that would haunt Steve for years afterwards, where Tony responded, a quiet little mewl humming at the back of his throat, and then he went slack and unresponsive under Steve, pulling away seconds later.
"Steve," he said dully, and something in Steve's head started screaming. "I think we might have had an misunderstanding."
"I hope not," Steve replied breathlessly, and Tony's whole face twisted up. "I - I shouldn't have kissed you, but we've been - it's been getting better and we're. It feels like before to me. Does it not to you?" His voice was so small by the end, staring into Tony's expression of regret and pain.
"No," Tony said firmly. "It does not."
"I still love you, Tony. I never stopped." Tony began to shake his head and Steve stepped closer. "I should have told you first thing when I came back but with the Titan dropping from the sky it seemed like a bad idea." It was strange how he was able to get those words out even as he felt he couldn't breathe.
Tony reached back, throwing his cone away and wiping fastidiously at the mess it left behind on his hand with his napkin. "Steve," he said, wiping harder and harder. "Steve, I don't-"
Steve seized Tony's hands in his only to have them jerked away and moved to rest on his biceps as Tony took several deep breaths, then opened his mouth.
It was such a sunny day. Things like this shouldn't happen on sunny days.
"I don't love you anymore."
Steve blinked once, twice, shaking his head a little. "What?"
"I don't love you anymore," Tony repeated, without a drop of uncertainty in his tone. "Not like before. Maybe not ever again."
"I don't understand," Steve said dumbly, because Tony was his someone, his forever. They had rebuilt twice, surely they could try one more time?
"You left me," Tony said, his voice finally showing emotion, cracking along the seams, words spilling out like he's been saving them up for years. "I kept begging you to stay and you kept leaving me. All I wanted was you, all I needed was you, but you - I don't know what there was for you, Steve, I don't know what I gave you. You lied to me for years, and you were always gone and I was so sick of it all. I laid there in Siberia and I thought 'this is it. This is enough.' It was more than I could stand. It felt better, not loving you. It hurt less. So I stopped."
"Tony, no," Steve heard himself say as if from very far away. "We can try again."
"Maybe you can," Tony said, trembling. "But I can't. My heart can't take it anymore, Steve. I can't do this with you again. I'm not in love with you. I won't let - Steve, I can't."
Steve stared at Tony's face, blurring slowly as tears filled his eyes. "Please," he said, just once.
"Let me go," Tony replied. He wiped at Steve's tears then tugged him down until he could kiss his forehead. It was the last time Tony touched him for a very long time.
Tony gave him space after that, and the others slowly realized that the happy ending they were expecting wasn't going to happen. Steve knew that Bucky and Natasha went to talk to Tony, but whatever was exchanged there changed their minds. Natasha shook her head once when Steve glanced up at her on their return and Bucky handed over a beer.
He curled himself into Sam, small like he used to be, and trembled through the next weeks, interminable months. He didn't know how Tony had done it. He didn't know how Tony had been strong enough. This love was everything Steve was in the new century. It made up integral parts of him. He could no more stop loving Tony Stark than cut out his own heart.
"You said 'maybe,'" he mentioned to Tony when he had the strength to exchange more than three words with him.
Tony kept his eyes on his work. "So I did."
"Steve. No more."
Sam dragged Steve out on a long trip with his family to Alaska. Out there, with Sam the only one who knew what lie back at the Compound, it was easier to breathe.
"It's going to hurt forever, I think," Steve remarked to Sam one day.
"Yeah," his friend agreed mildly, then peered up through his eyelashes. "You okay with that?"
"I see what he was trying to say. All those times I was gone he fell further and further out of it. Now he's gone and I'm just - waiting for the moment. When I fall."
Sam nodded. "That's good actually. Don't chase it. Let it happen to you; it'll be easier that way."
"And what comes after? I move on?"
"You move on," Sam answered, his eyes warm and glowing in the light off the snow. "Now get off your ass, Rogers, we're going sledding."
Tony coughed a lot lately. He'd self-diagnosed himself with the flu and didn't let Bruce come anywhere near him. "It'll go away, I just have a shitty immune system." The Guardians came and went and the flu persisted.
"I'm worried," Quill told him before he left.
"Please don't be. Worrying gives me hives," Tony shot back. Quill grinned, still a little trepidatious, and ruffled Tony's hair.
"I'll be back. Next time you won't resist me."
Tony, sick as a dog and still beautiful, suddenly went all lax and coy, pressing up against Quill. "And if I do resist?" he purred. "Will you take me prisoner, Star Lord? Keep me as your pet?"
Steve was not aware people could turn quite that shade of red, but maybe it was the Spartoi in Quill. The younger man spluttered a bit and then carefully peeled Tony away and set him to rights. "I'll just. I mean. I'm going now, Tony."
The Guardians retreated into their ship and Tony turned to Steve, pointing at it. "What did I tell you? No game." Steve found himself smiling back.
"What do they teach them out in space?" he wondered sarcastically. Tony grinned before he began coughing again.
A week later there was a call for all hands on deck, and Steve reluctantly let Tony suit up to take on a veritable army of Doombots swarming New York City. The Avengers fought for what seemed like forever before Tony, who had been strangely quiet, piped in over the comms.
"Have they released something in the air? Things are kinda...drifty."
"Negative, Iron Man," came Wasp's reply. "Are you all right?"
"Am I alright?" Tony repeated, sounding completely out of it. "FRIDAY, scan." Steve exchanged a worried look with Bucky and they both turned to where Iron Man was floating listlessly in the air. "Shit," Tony panted. "Someone get me Bruce. I'm having a heart attack."
There was an odd collective intake of breath and then Iron Man plummeted to the ground. Someone, somewhere was screaming, and it wasn't until Tony hit the pavement that Steve realized it was him.
Tony's heart was failing. His liver, too. One was bad enough, but both sent Bruce into a sort of depressive episode that only Tony asking for him brought him out of.
"He's Tony Stark!" Steve remembered screaming at some point. "There can't be nothing we can do!"
The Avengers assembled to figure something out, Hope suggested gene therapy to help promote cell regeneration but the science was still so far off. Steve recalled all those vials of Extremis he smashed years ago and felt like he was going to be ill.
"I cannot lose him, I will lose my mind," he sobbed into Sam's shoulder while the other man held him.
"I know," Sam said. "I know. Which is why you should listen carefully to what I'm about to say."
The Guardians came for him in the morning. Peter Quill stood by Tony's bedside, running his hands carefully around all the tubes, and whispered "Hey, stardust." Steve swallowed hard, watching him, the way his hands shook before touching Tony, and then they steadied. This was not a man who did not take what he felt for Tony Stark seriously. He wondered how soon Tony would realized that, too.
"Take care of him," Steve told him.
Quill looked up to where he stood at the door and nodded, face determined. "On my life, Captain."
"My man," Rhodey said on an exhale of relief as his best friend appeared on screen. "You look good!"
"I feel good," Tony announced, chipper as he hadn't been since the heart attack. "Space doctors got me all healed up. Is Bruce green with envy?"
"Eh. He looks normal to me," Spider-Man answered loudly. Tony rolled his eyes. "So when are you coming back, Tony?"
Tony's eyes slid to the side and Rhodey straightened and Steve knew. He reached out blindly, grabbing Sam's hand for comfort.
"I'm not," Tony finally replied, and the room exploded into sound, Avengers shouting their protests or questions. Tony sat back in his chair and waited til it died down before continuing. "Not right away, at least. I'm not leaving all of you without my awesomeness forever, just. For awhile. I like space, would like to see more of it, and the Guardians have offered me a spot on their crew." And Steve bet he knew right where that spot was. "I love you all, you know that, and I promise to miss you with a vengeance, but being out here has been good for me."
"Tony," Rhodey said, sounding more devastated than Steve had ever heard him. Carol wrapped her arms around him tight.
"Honey-bear, I've got this line all to myself. I call it the galacti-chat. Feel free to call and bitch me out when this portion of tonight's entertainment is over, but I'm not changing my mind."
Later it was Steve using the private line to Tony. "Sorry if I seem rattled, Natasha is still terrifying from light years away," the genius said.
"Tony," was all Steve could manage for a long while. "You're better, right?"
"I am. I'm sending Bruce the scans."
"And you're safe?"
"As houses, whatever that means."
Steve paused. "And Quill?"
Tony's eyes softened as he leaned in closer to the camera. "Yes," he said simply.
Steve could not speak around the roiling pit of jealousy and anger and regret in his stomach. He wanted so badly to let this go. Soldier on, like always. "Good. Kick some ass out there, Avenger."
"Can do," Tony said, sounding just as torn. "Steve? I didn't wake up one day and it was over. I don't know that it'll ever really be over. But it gets better."
Tony visited once, after the healing.
"Where's Quill?" Steve couldn't keep the sharpness out of his voice but Tony accepted it with good grace.
"On the ship. We're going on a deep space trip, very Star Trek. Communication might be sketchy. I came to say a proper goodbye just in case." Sam, ever sentinel at Steve's side, glanced between the two of them and then excused himself, ostensibly to fetch the others. Tony watched Steve watch him leave and sighed, tracing the non-existent lines on Steve's face. "When are you gonna put that guy out of his misery and ask him out?"
"I already did," Steve answered, leaning away from the touch. "We've gone on two dates." Tony looked pleasantly surprised but Steve couldn't keep his mouth closed. "I just don't know if I want more. If I want this again."
"Oh, Steve, no. Come on," Tony said. "Listen to me. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy. You deserve to be happy after the long trauma conga line that was your life."
"You made me happy," Steve whispered. "I'm sorry it wasn't the same for you."
Tony's gaze dropped as he confessed to the ground "You made me the happiest I'd ever been. It was everything else I couldn't bear up under. I don't know if I never could or if I somehow forgot along the way. But Sam," Tony whistled, trying to brighten the mood. "The shoulder width on that man. He can take you any day, Rogers."
Steve nodded, finding suddenly that he couldn't bear to speak about this. "Stay safe out there, Iron Man."
"Always, Captain," Tony promised.
Years later, Tony came back.
It was late at night, the Avengers curled around each other watching the newest James Bond - "blacker and better!" Sam had crowed - when the windows lit up with bright flash and there, not three feet from Thor's customary landing spot, stood Tony Stark.
They rushed out to meet him as he rushed into them and he saw Bruce and just folded into the older man's arms. There was a silence for a terrible long moment before it was broken by a loud keening sound that Steve had never wanted to hear again; the sound of Tony crying.
"Tony," Bruce crooned, patting the other man's back, looking to the others. The younger Avengers looked shocked at seeing the famed and fabled Iron Man so broken to pieces, aside from Peter Parker, who looked ready to break some necks.
"Let's take it inside, guys," Sam said lowly, nudging at Billy and Teddy to get them moving. As he passed by Tony he passed a comforting hand across the still-sobbing man's back. Tony rolled his head on Bruce's shoulder to glance up at who had touched him and acknowledged Sam with a nod, beginning the process of pulling himself together.
He stepped away from Bruce, keeping his face down as he wiped furiously at it. "Tony," Bruce began again. "Tony, what happened? Are the Guardians-"
"Oh, they're fine," Tony spat the last word viciously. "Everyone's perfectly fine now. Peter would tell you they're never better." And then he raised his face and Steve let out a small gasp, stepping forward.
Tony had hit fifty-five months ago, they had all galacti-chatted him the day after. He had been beautiful, all laugh lines and black-and-pepper hair, and the lovemark high on his throat could and did make Steve ache still, but he found the pain almost sweet. Quill had sat beside him, listening to them all wish his boyfriend a happy birthday, and his larger-than-life smile had faltered, little by little.
That Tony was gone now, smoothed away, smudged out, painted over. It was like looking at a picture of the past; it was a Tony he had never seen.
"I need Rhodey," Tony said, trying and failing to keep his voice even. "I need Rhodey."
"He made a deal," Tony would tell him later over a large glass of orange juice he was clearly wishing had vodka in it. It was one of the few times Rhodey or Natasha wasn't hovering around him since he had gotten there last week. "The Shi'ar had a choice to be made; they could lose a moon and the several thousand people living on it, or they could let the moon crash into the planet, lose the moon, and lose the twenty-five million souls on Aerie. Peter was the closest in contact and he was going to make the right choice, as hard as it was, but they didn't know him very well, so they offered him a boon to sweeten the deal. And he took it.
"He had been - it was like I hit fifty-five and he realized I was twenty years older than him and not getting any younger. He freaked out. Peter's terrified of losing people, lost his mom too young, doesn't really understand death despite being a, you know, a former space pirate-"
"You don't have to defend him," Steve said, a creeping feeling of dread slithering up his spine. Tony snorted into his juice, his eyes wet.
"I'm not," he gritted out. "Be-believe me, I am not. I just wanted - it helps me to explain his thought process, you know? I'm an engineer, I need to know why things happen. I need to know why he did this to me." He set the glass down, staring at his flawless hands. "He did this to me. They had met me, the Shi'arian generals, they knew about me, and him. And Peter took the stupid boon, coulda used it on Rocket, coulda cleared Drax's criminal charges on his home planet, but he chose me. He asked for more time. He destroyed the moon and I held him all night while he cried and in the morning I woke up and my back didn't hurt and I didn't need my glasses and he had the gall to smile at me-" Tony broke off, choking down a sob and clenching at the glass like it was his lifeline. Steve reached out and wrapped his arm around Tony.
"I didn't want this," Tony cried. "After my birthday, we would fight and I would tell him that dying was human, that I had lived a great life, even greater for knowing him, and he still had me for years. And that morning he asked me isn't it better this way, Tony? He was just so confused at why I might be mad that he changed me against my will." Even later, Steve would dig out of Rhodey that the Shi'ar had asked one of their captive races to perform a spell on Tony that had literally tuned his body to Quill's. Tony hadn't just gone backwards; thanks to Quill's weird Spartoi biology he had a number of extra decades to live through as well.
For others this might not have seemed like something to be upset about. Steve, experienced with living longer than he should have and looking to a future of outliving all his friends, knew better. It was a special brand of hurt, one that never healed but still left scars.
"Rhodey was iffy, but there was a chance," Tony whispered. "A selfish one, that I might go before him. But now I'm gonna - I'm gonna see Pepper die, too."
"Promise me, Steve," Tony said to him one day as they watched Sam lead the kids through the training course. Steve didn't know what he was talking about until he looked closer, saw what Tony was seeing. Sam, a bit of grey at the temples of the hair he still kept close-shaved, still confident and brilliant and glorious as ever, but slower than he had been when Steve first met him. Less sharp. He was forty-seven years old.
"I would never," Steve promised, glorying a bit in Tony's hopeful smile. That night he looked at Sam and him in the mirror as they puttered around the bathroom getting ready for bed. He should be forty but he still looked like the fresh-faced kid that came out of the ice. Sam caught his eyes, three years of love and ten of familiarity allowing him to read the look there easily, and his face tightened, throwing all the lines there into stark relief. He rinsed out his toothbrush without a word and moved to walk out when Steve caught his wrist. "I would never," he told him. "I love you. I would never."
A week after Tony's confession, he gathered them all in the living room. The young Avengers had rapidly grown quite fond of Tony in his short stay, in turns amused by his antics and the stories Natasha and Bucky told and awed by the man's brilliance. Tony smiled at them sadly and that's when Steve knew he wasn't staying.
"Gamora will be here in a few hours," Tony told the room at large. "I'm going back to the Guardians. Baby-vengers, keep kicking ass and don't let the old-marrieds here ruin your cred. You're way cooler than they ever were. As for the rest of you - I owe you the world. I know some of you have your doubts but it's time for me to face this head-on."
Tony wouldn't hear any arguments, even though he laughed a little meanly when Bucky and Peter once again offered to break Quill's face in. He spent the last few hours sitting out on a lawn chair. "I miss our sun," he told Steve when he came out to see him. Steve chuckled and looked up to the sky. "I'm glad I got to see everyone again. You lose track out there - I'm scared sometimes, of what I'm missing."
"You could stay," Steve said softly. There was still some selfish part of him convinced that Tony had ran off to space to get away from him - from them. Even now, years later and deliriously in love with Sam, it still sat like a dark mark on his heart.
He could feel Tony's eyes on him. The older man had used his time on Earth to restock his supply of sunglasses but behind the lenses his gaze still burned. "2015. Ultron had just happened and you told me you needed space. We didn't get back together for months. I never got over it until years later. You hurt me so bad and I should have been honest about that. I should have, but we can't change the past. All we can do is learn from it." Steve, standing there on the wide open lawn of the Avengers compound, felt like all the air had been sucked away. "I'm furious with Peter, and furious isn't even adequate to really cover it, but I can't leave it like that. If I can't get past it, if it's over, then it's over. But I love him, still. I have to try."
Steve looked down at Tony, the smooth tan skin glowing in the afternoon sun, those old eyes so out of place in such a young face. Why him? he wanted to ask. Why could you forgive him but not me? Why does he get one more chance? It was miserable and it was mean and Steve hated that part of himself that couldn't stop regretting the past. He kept his mouth shut but Tony must have seen it in his face anyway because he smiled sadly and shrugged.
"He needs me," he said.
And Steve - Steve had thought he was past dealing with this. "You think I didn't need you?"
"I know you didn't," Tony replied without hesitation. Steve wanted to tell him how wrong he was; Steve had always needed Tony at his side, his sparks of overwhelming kindness in that vast sea of bitterness, his constant questioning, his warm arms and scarred chest and clever fingers, his cleverer mind.
But there was nothing to be done anymore, was there? They couldn't change the past. If this was how Tony had moved on all those years ago, then Steve would let him keep it.
Gamora transported down not two hours later, and they gathered out on the field to wish Tony well. Tony hugged Steve last and closest. "You're happy, right?" he whispered in his ear.
"I am," Steve answered truthfully, and by Tony's smile it was the greatest gift he could have given the man he still loved so much. "Call soon."
"You bet, Cap," Tony promised. "Bye all. Chat soon. Gamora, my lovely, shall we?" Gamora held onto Tony like she'd never let him go and before they disappeared in a cloud of atoms Steve would swear he saw her plant a kiss on his cheek.
Tony chose to stay. When Peter next appeared on the galacti-chats he was wary, his grip around Tony's waist more fragile but infinitely more loving. Three years later and they all headed out to a wedding held in a bar on Knowhere. Rocket cried harder than even Pepper. Steve had never seen Tony so happy. The small dark spots of him watched Quill and Tony feed each other some approximation of cake and slipped away.
He proposed to Sam the next year.
Fury died some ten years later. Tony came for the funeral, looking barely older than he did before, he and Quill swinging a small girl in between them by the hands. They called her Maria and teased her when she shyly offered a flower to the eleven-year-old boy Steve and Sam had adopted around five years ago, Richard. The family had bodyguards who terrified even Steve and embarrassed Tony whenever they referred to him as "Prince Stark."
"So, yeah," Quill revealed. "Turns out I'm a king. Of an actual planet. Weird, huh? Lucky lucky that I married Tony before they got their hands on me."
"Please," Tony huffed, holding Maria with one hand and fixing Quill's lapels with the other. "Like missing your ring on my finger would stop me. You're mine for life, Quill."
Quill's eyes practically glowed with happiness. "For life, Stark."
They put Fury in the ground. It was the least sad funeral Steve had ever been to, and Fury would probably have wanted it that way. Afterwards the Avengers and their significant others cram into a room and pass around bottles of alcohol, Steve keeping one eye on the window where he could see Richard playing with Maria. He caught Tony doing the same and they shared a grin.
"I've gotta be honest," Tony said, balancing precariously on Quill's lap, letting his husband pass along the bottles when they came their way. "I thought the bastard was immortal."
Clint slammed his hand on the seat of his chair and glared at Laura. "See? I wasn't the only one." They were in their late sixties by that point and Laura's responding laugh sounded well-worn with love. Steve held Sam's hand tightly in his, content for a while to just watch his husband grin and laugh with the others.
Quill and Stark and he were as young as ever.
Natasha, fifty-four and as beautiful as she had always been, sat with her head resting on Bucky's flesh shoulder. Bucky, barely aged, held her close in a grip that had only grown tighter as the years went on.
Tony outlived Colonel James Rhodes and survived. It was when his prophecy came true and he buried Pepper Potts-Hogan next to her husband that he lost it. He locked himself in the mansion on Fifth Avenue, away from Quill, barely able to hold a conversation with his youngest daughter Ginny.
Steve called him from the home he and Sam had retired to, sitting out on the front porch while Sam slept. Sam did that a lot those days. "I'm so sorry I couldn't make it," he told him. "It's just, with the cancer-"
"No," Tony pleaded brokenly. "Don't apologize. I'll get my ass in gear, I swear, Steve, just don't call me apologizing with Sam there needing you."
"Tony, take your time. Peter loves you, he understands."
Tony laughed bitterly. "He's stuck with me. He played himself with that stupid deal."
"He loves you," Steve repeated. "We all do. We want you to get better on your own time."
Tony was silent for a moment. When he next spoke his voice was hushed. "She was with me from the time I was twenty-nine. She took care of me when I couldn't take care of myself. The time where I didn't have her in my life is not a time I like to remember. Even now I catch myself screwing up with some Xandarian diplomat and thinking 'Pepper will help me.' And now. But it's not - she was so much more than me. It's darker now, with her gone."
"Yes, it is," Steve agreed.
"I've got to get back to space anyway," Tony said, audibly pulling himself together. "I've got to look for something for Sam. Are you sure there's nothing here we can do?"
They had caught it too late. Even in this day and age, there was nothing to stop it. Tony had been bartering for space-day medicine since Steve had called him with the diagnosis, but all that was past now. "Sam says he's ready, Tony. I have to respect that. So do you." He tried to keep his voice strong.
"Steve," Tony said, always able to see through him.
Steve broke, voice cracking down the middle as surely as his heart. "It's not fair. It's not fair. Tony, I. I don't know how to -" He was sobbing, harder than he had let himself since the first time Sam's CAT scans had come in showing the thimble sized mass taking up space in his husband's brain. "He stopped chemo weeks ago and I just sit there beside him, I'm watching him die, I can't-"
Tony was shushing him softly, endless platitudes spilling from his lips across the line until Steve could breathe again. "I'm sorry, Steve, so sorry, but you have to. You know you have to. You need to, because you love him and he needs you to help him through this. If he's - if he's ready, then help him stay ready. You keep him warm and safe and don't let him be scared."
"Is that what Peter did for you? Before the healing?" Steve managed.
"Yeah," Tony said on a broken sigh. "He still does it. And so do you, for Sam. I loved you once, too. I thought there was no place safer than next to you. You just have to do what you've always done, Captain. Love him. Keep him safe."
"What are you going to do?"
He could hear the rustle of Tony moving, a door opening. "I'm going to call my husband and my kids and that terrifying baby-person I've been informed is my grandchild, lay down about a thousand blankets in the living room, and hold them close tonight. I'll come by to visit soon. Take care of yourself, Steve."
Steve hung up the call and headed inside, not remarking on his daughter Natalie sobbing into the the couch cushions because she hated being taken care of and reminding himself to call her boyfriend later. In their bedroom Sam slept on. Richard looked up from the book he was reading out loud and smiled when he saw his father. "I'll take Leelee upstairs for a bit," he said, and Steve pulled him in for a hug, burying his head into his son's shoulders and letting himself shake once, twice, before letting go, climbing into bed beside Sam while Richard closed the door behind him.
"I would never," he whispered, repeating his promise from years ago, even if the meaning had changed. "I love you. I would never."
They buried Sam on a Sunday. Steve could honestly say he did not remember it. Or the day after. The week after. The month after.
He recovered. Time heals all wounds, and all Steve had was time. He surrounded himself with his son and his daughter, his grandchildren. He went on long roadtrips with Bucky and lectures with Bruce. He visited Thor in Asgard. He never stopped missing his husband.
His favorite times were Tony's visits. The Kings of Spartax had left the throne to Maria three years back, Quill apparently so devastated by Rocket's death that it had taken him a full year to recover. Tony was with him every step of the way and once again they traipsed around guarding the Galaxy. They came to see Earth twice a year, and they gathered Steve up and took him to the graves. Tony had cried when he first saw Sam's, and tried to hide it from Steve until the taller man gathered him up so they could cry together.
Quill was softer now around the edges, long years of grief and love and family and ruling shaping him into a man that might have finally deserved Tony. Sometimes when he and Tony were gone, Steve found himself missing them both.
He dated again, once the new Black Widow named Tania, once the dimension hopping Adam Warlock, once a new Avenger named Andros who had inherited the Iron Man name from Riri Williams. They were all light, easy, and something that Sam had told Steve he wanted for him.
"Look at you," his husband had said. "Still gorgeous as ever. Not as pretty as me but you've still got it. Don't go wasting that after I'm gone, Rogers." His smile had turned serious and he took Steve's hand. "It doesn't have to be like me, Steve. It doesn't even have to be like Tony. But let it be someone, alright? You need people."
They didn't last, but they helped him. One day he woke up without his husband's name on his lips and he laughed at relief at how it didn't feel like a betrayal.
They buried Clint, then Laura later. They buried Maria Hill, next to the wife she had kept secret for all those long years. They buried Natasha and Bucky's middle son Grant after a car accident and Natasha went not long after. Bucky aged faster than Steve but not fast enough. Steve lost his best friend for a year and a half in Russia before he came back at the demand of his daughter Ekaterina.
Wanda used her magic to keep her young and with Vision. Thor came down for Jane Foster's funeral, leaning heavily on his queen's strong shoulder, then did not visit for quite some time. Betty Ross died and Bruce quietly slipped back to the third world, emerging years later with a cure for sickle cell anemia he named after her. Scott died on the West Coast, and the wings passed on to his and Hope's granddaughter Janet. Across the sea T'Challa passed away surrounded by his enormous family and the Avengers were allowed to watch from a distance when they interred him in the Necropolis next to his father.
Quill and Tony came to every funeral. Tony stood at Steve's side, Iron Man ever at the ready to back up Captain America.
"I was afraid I'd get used to this," Tony said softly as he traced his hands over Darcy Lewis' headstone. He looked maybe forty this year. "Is it weird that I'm glad it still hurts?"
"Not at all," Steve replied.
When they get ready to separate, Tony glanced at his hand wrapped in Quill's and then back to Steve. "Come with us," he said. It was the first time he had ever asked. Steve, surprised, found himself looking to Quill first, but the hybrid just stared steadily back, tilting his head towards where the ship was hidden under stealth tech.
"My kids," Steve began, but didn't know how to finish. His kids were full-grown with families of their own.
"Bucky," he tried.
Tony shrugged. "Buck can come too. The stars once stitched me back up again. Maybe they can do the same for you two."
But Tony had Peter in those stars. Steve and Bucky had Sam and Natasha down in the earth. Steve shook his head. "I still need to stitch up the wounds here before I try the stars, Tony."
Tony nodded. "I'll ask again." He hugged Steve close and traitorous as ever Steve's body curled itself in to get as close as possible. When Tony pulled away he found himself dragged in by Quill as well.
"Be happy, Captain," the prince told him. "Be happy again. You deserve it."
They walked away and Steve watched them go.
Over the year and three months that Sam slowly died he had extracted many promises from Steve. His most favorite was this:
Keep living. And I don't mean existing, I don't mean one step in front of the other. I mean living, Steve. Promise me you'll laugh again. Promise me you'll dance.
When he told Bucky of Tony's offer the other man shrugged, looking out at the African desert they were visiting. "I don't know, Stevie. I lost seventy years, I still got some doing that needs to be done here. But you? You've done it all. Might be good for you. And Tony loves you, always has. He'll take good care of you, punk."
"He has Peter," Steve protested. Bucky stared at him.
"I wasn't aware that meant that somewhere along the way he lost you."
He called Tony and told the truth he should have years ago. "I did need you back then. I needed you even after. Sam was more than enough, more than I ever deserved, but I always needed you, Tony. I still do."
This is where they start:
The hatch opens, spilling out a ramp for Steve and his small duffel to climb aboard. Tony and Quill stand up at the top, the latter's arm wrapped tight around his husband's shoulders.
"Ready to see the wonders of space? Did you bring your shield?" Tony asks, his eyes as bright and warm as they've ever been. Steve still loves this man, not with the burning pain of sixty years ago and not the way he loved Sam, but something slower, warmer, softer. And Tony-
Tony loves him, too. Not like before and not like Quill, but unmistakably, all over again, Tony loves him.
"Captain, it's an honor," Quill adds. Steve reaches out for a handshake and the two laugh and pull him in for a hug and he is warm between them, and safe, and he is unafraid.
When they settle he can hear Sam's dogtags clink against his own over his pounding heart. He breathes deep, loves his husband just a little bit more then lets go and keeps his promise. He keeps living. "Show me what you've got, boys."